What future for EU-Russia relations?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A man walks on the rainy Sobornaya Square is the central square of the Moscow Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, 8 October 2020. [Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA/EFE]

The EU and Russia will not be able to overcome their disagreements in the coming decade. But if they so choose, they can come to a pragmatic partnership that safeguards peace and stability in Europe, write Sabine Fischer and Ivan Timofeev.

Sabine Fischer is a Senior Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Ivan Timofeev is the director of programs at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow. Together, they coordinate the EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy.

The EU has been debating recently whether it should keep, amend or discard the five guiding principles for its Russia policy. When they were adopted in 2016, two years after the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, EU-Russia relations seemed to have hit rock bottom. However, developments since proved otherwise.

Mutual accusations of interference in elections and domestic affairs, the Salisbury incident, and, most recently, discord over the Navalny poisoning and the political crisis in Belarus have taken the relationship to even lower levels.

Today, the atmosphere between the EU and Russia is characterized by escalating contradictions and new sanctions, as Moscow and the EU are losing interest in each other.

Negative trends in EU-Russia relations are strong, but not irreversible. It will depend on both sides whether relations will improve – or descend further into conflict in the coming decade. Such is the conclusion made by the EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy.

EUREN, an initiative of the EU Delegation to Moscow and the Russian International Affairs Council, is one of the few remaining platforms bringing together experts from the EU and Russia. It has just published a Report on alternative futures of EU-Russia relations in 2030.

The first scenario takes the EU and Russia to the brink of war. The West rebounds after the COVID-19 pandemic. Putin still rules in Moscow. The Russian political system is authoritarian, based on state capitalism and the suppression of political opposition.

An assertive and nationalist foreign policy helps to secure domestic legitimacy. NATO consolidates around the Russian threat. The negative dynamic between the Washington and Moscow leads to a new arms race, increasing hostility and, eventually, military confrontation.

In the second scenario, the EU disintegrates and the European continent descends into anarchy. EU member states prove unable to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Populists become the dominant political force. A radical course is gaining the upper hand in Russia, too.

The United States is engrossed in a Cold War with China and forms selective coalitions with individual European states. In 2029, the Donbas conflict re-escalates and former European and transatlantic allies turn on each other.

The third scenario is the result of a political transition in Russia. Public protests bring to power a young politician with pro-Western ideas in 2024. He sets out to normalize relations with the EU.

Russia no longer supports the breakaway territories in the Donbas, which paves the way for a sustainable resolution of the conflict. In response, the EU starts to lift the sanctions. By 2030, the EU and Russia are united in a “community of values”.

In the fourth scenario, both Russia and the EU cope successfully with the consequences of COVID-19. Russia is led by a technocratic leader, Vladimir Putin’s successor. He successfully pursues administrative and economic reforms and curbs corruption. The investment climate is improving.

Moscow opens up to a partial normalization of relations with the EU. Meanwhile, the EU transforms into a more active international player. Its diplomacy helps to facilitate the implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

However, key security and political issues, including the discord over Crimea, remain unsolved. Relations between Russia and the EU turn into a “cold partnership.”

Clearly, many in the EU would prefer the “community of values” scenario to become true by 2030.

A collapse of European integration may be the dream of Russian conservatives. EUREN members believed a “cold partnership” to be the most plausible scenario for the future of the relationship.

The EU and Russia will not be able to overcome their disagreements in the coming decade. But if they so choose, they can come to a pragmatic partnership that safeguards peace and stability in Europe.

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